Tension in Territories: Hong Kong and Puerto Rico
Protest has filled much of the news recently, from continued rallies against Brexit to an ongoing revolution in Sudan. However, two locations have stolen much of the attention: Hong Kong and Puerto Rico. These territories happen to be colonial holdover possessions of the two largest economies in the world today (China and the United States). This makes activities within the territories highly significant as outstanding internal political disputes influencing policymaking in Washington and Beijing.
This post will outline how the two protest situations are based on the rather similar political and historical backgrounds shared by Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, similarities that are striking given how far apart the territories are geographically and culturally. I believe that these case study territories also underscore a current trend of protest that may have some global import; in this way it is unsurprising that both uprisings have utilized new techniques to exert the maximum amount of pressure on targeted adversaries.
The most important aspect binding Puerto Rico and Hong Kong is their status as colonial holdover territories. Puerto Rico became a US possession after the Spanish-American War and remains a strategic region in the Caribbean. Hong Kong was a Chinese concession to the British during the Opium Wars and remained a part of Great Britain until a formal handover took place in 1997.
This colonial theme remains evident in current relations between the territories and their corresponding states. Puerto Rico is treated as a possession by the United States (suffering indignities like no Congressional representation, no Presidential election, and damaging tax policy encouraging abuse from mainland corporations/individuals) while Hong Kong is increasingly under the political grip of Beijing. Both territories thus struggle under such unrepresentative and autonomy-threatening conditions given their lively and robust local cultures which promote distinct identities in the world. That said, residents of both territories are, by and large, offered citizenship in their respective countries (USA, China).
Why Protests Now? Can They Actually Work?
These are some of the more pressing questions when looking at the two territories in tandem. I am personally skeptical that the explosion of dissent in both Puerto Rico and Hong Kong is a concurrent coincidence. In fact, I think they are related to how each territory has largely been run over the past two decades - that is to say with a sense of indifference from the mainland. In Puerto Rico, this is summed up powerfully by the minimal federal response to Hurricane Maria, which decimated the island. In China, the “one country two systems” approach has allowed Hong Kong to essentially self govern; the territory has its own currency and courts, two name just two examples.
That protests on both territories have been essentially successful (a controversial governor was forced to resign in Puerto Rico and a controversial extradition law was pulled back in Hong Kong) also points to a common element being effectively targeted. From my view, this target appears to be the state-territory relationship forged within neocolonialism itself, with protesters pushing back forcefully on incursions from elites representing the colonial power into territorial life. There is also the issue of identity in both cases given the perceived blatant disregard for local culture by US and Chinese officials.
The Great Debate of Independence
In a vacuum, the next logical place for Puerto Rican and Hong Konger protests to go is towards declaring independence. Puerto Rico has in the past taken half measures towards this goal but statehood referenda failed. Hong Kong, on the other hand, has remained a unique territorial possession transferred from one falling power (Britain) to another rising one (China).
In reality, however, both territories are stuck into remaining within territorial arrangements with their mainland governments. What is at stake is therefore the nature of the relationship these territories will have with their overruling national governments. Hong Kong clearly prefers the “one country, two systems” approach which allows the territory to effectively manage the entirety of its internal affairs as it sees fit. Many Hong Kongers and Asia watchers alike also note that the autonomy of Hong Kong as stipulated in the 1997 handover agreement will eventually expire in the coming decades, giving China the opportunity to take over and dominate. Puerto Rico, on the other hand, is more deeply integrated with the larger United States population and society given Puerto Ricans’ status as full US Citizens. Many Puerto Ricans want to benefit from this citizenship and get more attention (and funds) from Washington to help meet their economic and development needs.
As such, Puerto Rico and Hong Kong occupy important places in world affairs today. The protests taking place in each locale highlight critical issues for the US, China, and beyond. Therefore it is fitting to underscore their situations and their significance in this post and I believe both territories deserve more analytical attention going forward.